Private universities, newspapers clash over ads

Controversies involving student newspapers tend to stem from editorial content, and usually involve administrators censoring a certain article or readers protesting over how events or issues are covered. But advertisements have also sparked controversy on college campuses, often because students and administrators were offended by the message of the ad.

In March 2001, for example, students were outraged when several student newspapers published an advertisement condemning the proposal of paying reparations to the descendants of slaves. At some schools where the ad was published, the newspaper faced protests and thefts.

But in some cases, a university’s contract or business interest — not an ad’s controversial message — is the reason for advertising censorship. 

At one private college in Pennsylvania, an advertisement for, a discount online bookseller, caused problems for the student newspaper.

Officials at Cedar Crest College worried that the advertisement in The Crestiad might have violated a contract the school has with retail bookseller Barnes & Noble. The contract states that the bookstore is the sole “official” provider of textbooks for Cedar Crest students. An administrator from the Allentown school contacted Elizabeth Ortiz, the newspaper’s adviser, and asked her not to run any more ads for other booksellers.

Ortiz said advertisements should be considered like any other newspaper content and spoke with administrators about the independence of the publication.

“If ad content was regulated, what’s to keep the rest of the content from being regulated?” Ortiz said. 

Ortiz said the school officials spoke with a lawyer to make sure they were not violating the school’s contract with Barnes & Noble by allowing the student newspaper to accept advertisements for competing businesses. 

Ortiz said the situation was finally resolved to the newspaper’s satisfaction.

“They decided that they would rather not infringe on the rights of the students,” Ortiz said. “The paper can do what it would like with advertising and [editorial] content.”

Christopher Kiggins, president of College Newspaper Business and Advertising Managers, said that restricting advertising might violate the free press rights of students working for the newspaper.

“Students should have the right to accept — or reject — advertising without the intervention of university officials,” said Kiggins, advertising manager at Student Life, a student newspaper at Washington University in St. Louis. “However … when you’re at a private university, you aren’t necessarily afforded First Amendment rights.”

Kiggins said the most common reason that he has encountered for administrative censorship of advertising is that the advertisement might violate the terms of a contract that the school has with another company.

 “If a private university is going to try to prohibit such things, they need to present a pretty compelling reason as to why or how this is the case,” Kiggins said. “Students and advisers working on the newspaper should be able to present their side of the case, explaining the role the First Amendment plays in the situation.”

John McClelland, a publications board member at Roosevelt University in Chicago, said that while the administration at that school has no control over the advertising content of the newspaper, the publications board does have some guidelines on advertisements from other schools that compete with Roosevelt University for students.

He said board policy also dictates that when an advertisement is received from another institution for a program that directly competes with a Roosevelt University program, the student newspaper must contact the Roosevelt program and offer “comparable advertising concurrently and either free or at a discount.”

Kiggins said students should publicize the issue if their school administration tries to limit what advertisements they can publish. 

“If students are made to reject advertising by administrators, I would urge them to write a story about the situation,” Kiggins said. “Maybe the bad publicity would make the university rethink its stance on issues such as these.”

Kiggins said that the financial independence of a newspaper could play into the amount of control the university has over the newspaper.

“Some smaller papers may depend a lot on student fees or university funding for their budgets, which can put them at a disadvantage to becoming editorially and financially independent,” Kiggins said. “In that case, I really would suggest opening the lines of communication between the newspaper and university administration and really stress the needs and points of why advertising revenue is so important and why they feel they should be able to accept (or reject) ads as they see fit.”